We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the thirst began to take hold. I didn’t know whether it was the heat or the fine, airborne mist of burnt petrochemicals – the same foul stuff that gives Los Angeles a ghastly sulphurous cast from a distance – but I could taste that town at the back of my throat. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit tight-chested; maybe you should drive…’
Pulling a milk carton from his lips, my photographer spluttered: ‘You’re the only one insured for the Great Red Shark. Besides, it was your idea to drive across the desert to Las Vegas in a convertible red Chevy. Let’s find a Starbucks.’
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And so it began, the trip I’d wanted to do for 30 years. Not, I have to confess, with a bootful of extremely dangerous drugs and a wild Samoan attorney rubbing beer into his bare chest to facilitate the tanning process, but a burly, milk-swigging photographer called Andy and the need for an urgent detour to buy a Chi Tea Latte and a skinny decaff Cappuccino. Not so much fear and loathing as froth and loafing. But there would be beer. And tyre smoke.
I’d driven from LA to Vegas once before, taking my daughter Sarah to see her favourite band, Lostprophets, in concert at the Mandalay Bay’s House of Blues. We covered the 300 or so miles in a whispering, air-conditioned Lexus LS 430 that shielded us from the baking heat as it wafted innocuously towards the most luminous city on earth. But it strikes me that if you’re going to take the desert highway to Vegas it’s worth doing it properly. If not in the wheeltracks of Hunter S Thompson’s savage journey to the dark heart of the American Dream, then from a safe distance with the perspective of 37 years. Above all, with the top down.
The timing could hardly have been more apt. We landed at LAX the Monday afternoon Wall Street rang the meltdown bell. The very bedrock of global capitalism was cracking under our feet. More than ever, we reckoned, Vegas would be the place that hid the weakly flickering flame of the American Dream behind a dazzling neon torch, the place to go to experience total dislocation from reality, even without the aid of recreational drugs. But, like Thompson and his attorney, we needed a convertible with plenty of horsepower to get there. Fortunately, the keys to our Great Red Shark were just a short shuttle-bus ride away. Without the need to carry a mobile narcotics lab in the boot and harbouring no plans to pick up a hitchhiker en route, we reasoned that the latest ’09 spec Corvette convertible would cater for all our hedonistic needs in a sharper, more dynamic fashion than the lumbering Chevy Impala HST that the Samoan hired from a car lot in Beverly Hills. With one exception. We couldn’t fit the luggage and all Andy’s camera kit into the modestly dimensioned boot at the same time. Or we could, but only with the lid wide open.
It was just as well we were staying at The Radisson on West Century Boulevard that night. Conceding defeat to our chattels, we jammed everything in, ignored the ‘trunk ajar’ display in the instrument panel and tried not to look too conspicuous as we burbled circumspectly the mile or so to the hotel at a speed that, if continued the next day, would have ensured we didn’t reach Vegas until midnight. Assuming we hadn’t already melted into waxy pools with tufts of hair by the side of the desert road in Death Valley. There was only one thing to do. Stuff shorts, tee shirts and underwear into squashy overnight bags and leave the bulkier suitcases with the bellboy at the Radisson awaiting our return three days later. This was a magazine feature after all and we were professionals; the cameras and lights were coming with us. Barely 20 minutes after checking in we were on the road again, heading across town to the Polo Lounge of the fabulously pink Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Immortalised in the first few pages of Fear and Loathing and still the place to be seen for Hollywood types, this is where Thompson and his attorney, going by the assumed names of Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo, took the phonecall that outlined the details of the assignment to cover the Mint 400 desert bike race in Vegas. We needed to get there by 6pm if we wanted to drink beer in our shorts and trainers (which we did) because that’s when the dress code changed from casual to smart and we’d run out of options. No thanks to the tedious sprawl of silently creeping Toyota Priuses clogging our route (interspersed with the odd conspicuously pampered Mini Cooper S), we made it with 40 minutes to spare. There was a moment of excitement on the way, though. Travelling down a tree-lined boulevard on the outskirts of the UCLA’s vast campus, and somewhat surprised to find a clear road ahead, I was seized by an irresistible urge to flatten the Great Red Shark’s accelerator. Fact is, curiosity had got the better of me. Up to that point, travelling on the lightest of throttle openings, the Vette had sounded flat and anodyne, a disappointing model of benign placidity. But it woke up with a yelp of rubber, a torque squirm that seemed to twist the whole body along its axis and a Hard Rock bellow from the quad exhaust pipes that truly stirred the blood. Both figuratively and literally, our journey had shifted into another gear.
Over a few bottles of Sierra Nevada, and before our scruffy attire rendered us persona non grata in the Polo Lounge, we mapped out a night shoot in LA. It would require more equipment, so we headed for Samy’s Camera store on South Fairfax Avenue to tool up. While Andy exercised the plastic, I pulled the Vette’s spec sheet from the glovebox. It explained a few things – in particular the meaty slug of acceleration and stadium soundtrack. With evo’s attention naturally gravitating towards the Z06 and the new supercharged ZR1, it was easy to forget that the stock Vette was a formidable machine in its own right. For the 2009 model year, its 6.2-litre (LS3) V8 developed 430bhp at 5900rpm and 424lb ft of torque at 4600rpm. But our six-speed paddle-shifter was fitted with the optional dual-mode exhaust which, as well as delivering the authentic American musclecar V8 battle-cry on demand, liberated an extra 6bhp and 4lb ft. Chevrolet claims 0-60mph in 4.3sec and 190mph flat out. Fast enough.
As dusk approached, we cruised the length of Sunset Strip towards downtown, slowing respectfully as the distinctive matt black facade of the infamous Viper Room nightclub, where actor River Phoenix died of a drugs overdose on Halloween morning in 1993, slid by to our right. Given the sheer number of Priuses on the Strip and their pitiful contribution to the city soundscape, I felt obliged to rouse the Great Red Shark’s magnificent singing voice at every opportunity. No one seemed to mind. In fact, I swear some passers by smiled nostalgically.
An old hand in LA, photographer Andy felt it only right we visit as many iconic film locations as possible before hitting the sack back at the Radisson. Those in old LA, a scant few blocks from the glitzy downtown skyscrapers, were, by turns, the most fascinating and depressing. Many of the warehouse-lined backstreets were instantly recognisable as those used in The Fast and The Furious, though there was nothing remotely uptempo about the hundreds of homeless queuing to get into the soup kitchens. Not far away we burbled through the 2nd Street tunnel with its famously reflective domed roof seen in Blade Runner as Deckard returns to his apartment (less noisily than us). The best views of LA, however, were more distant, looking back towards the city from the crest of the 6th Street Bridge that spans the LA River aquaduct and flood control defences. The great expanses of banked concrete with, on most days, just a splash of water trickling down the centre have featured in numerous movies, including Terminator 2: Judgement Day (juggernaut tractor unit tries to squash Arnie). We returned to the same spot early next morning on the way to joining the I-15 that would lead us into the Mojave desert on the long haul to Vegas. The cool post-dawn light that flatters so many American skylines grabbed its chance with the city’s huddled towers and made them glisten before the smog closed in. With the temperature climbing through the high 60s, this was the coolest we’d be for the next 48 hours.
By the time we reached Starbucks on Main Street in Barstow it had hit the mid-90s and, along with the gently quivering praying mantis pivoting across the right-angled union of two walls, we found some useful shade round the side of the building to quaff our frothy liquids. We knew that the next 100 miles would require precautions if we were going to stick with our vow to keep the top down: factor 40 sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats and serious shades would be essential if we didn’t want to end up the same colour as the Flamingo casino in Vegas. At Baker – a small town on the edge of the Death Valley National Park so proud of its furnace-like climate, its most prominent landmark is the world’s tallest thermometer jutting skywards from a car park – we could sense the afternoon heat flexing its muscles, cracking its knuckles. The Vette was reading the ambient temperature at 110 degrees F, which squared with the giant illuminated lolly stick in Baker. Cruising at 90 in the Great Red Shark, it didn’t feel quite so hot. The terrible roar all around us wasn’t Thompson’s drug-induced giant bats but the poorly controlled buffeting of the airstream, which would have become tiresome had it not been for its cooling effect.
We decided not to venture into the blazing heart of Death Valley, instead cutting back onto the 190 for the Nevada border and Las Vegas. Almost immediately we encountered a dust storm that blew up out of nowhere, followed by two claps of thunder and what we thought was the start of heavy rain. But the skies soon cleared and the wind died away. The ensuing run to the Nevada state line had the surreal, dream-like quality only a lonely desert highway can deliver: impossibly straight tarmac dissolving into liquid, rippling heat, a million shades of dust and 360 degrees of glare. They say the trick with a long-haul road trip is to disengage, let time and distance glide effortlessly by. But the Great Red Shark, although smooth-riding on even the sportier of its two magnetic damper settings, was too much of a predator at its core to settle for the path of least resistance. Anything that came into view it overtook. Aggressively and with maximum noise. At times, I wondered if I should try to fight it, introduce it to a calmer state of being. But it was no good, it wanted to cruise at 110. We’d be in Vegas sooner than we thought.
In fact, it was even sooner than that. Vegas regulars will tell you that the real estate lining the major routes into town is expanding at a rate constrained only by the physical limits of construction technology. Just a handful of years ago the city skyline could be seen clearly from a dozen miles away, etched against the dusky orange glow of the Mojave desert’s low-rise mountains. Now it merged into a backdrop of closely-stacked, dirt-coloured housing. A less alluring introduction to ‘sin city’ would be hard to imagine.
But as a numbing precursor to the neon and LED Big Bang that is The Strip, it couldn’t have been more effective. We checked into the Luxor, the hotel shaped like a black pyramid that shines a beam of light into the night sky so powerful it can be seen from orbit. The rooms had seen better days but, if we could stay awake long enough, they wouldn’t be seeing much of us. Andy married his American wife in Vegas and, more importantly, knew the best places to eat and drink without having our senses coshed by the inane din and twitching lights of a thousand slot machines. We started the evening with some decent pasta and a few large glasses of micro-brewed ale at Gordon Biersch on Paradise Road, a short taxi ride from The Strip, then took another taxi to the Circle Bar at The Hard Rock Cafe to see what the city’s hep groovers and shakers do on a Tuesday night.
Not a lot to begin with. At one point, an old boy hooked up to an oxygen bottle he was pushing on a trolley was the hottest action on the floor. But after the fourth bottle of Sam Adams things began to get strange. The bar at which we were sitting was pulsating alternately blue and red. Inexplicably, the blue phase started to bug me. I only felt good when bathed in red light. Then a podgy, middle-aged guy sitting four places to my left caught my attention and nailed it to a point approximately two inches below his hairline where the most perfectly constructed kiss curl I’ve ever seen bounced annoyingly in time with his second chin as he chuckled helplessly to a bevy of ladies clearly transfixed by his barnet. What I couldn’t understand was that I was tranfsixed, too. Hardly the vortex of the American Dream, but I was getting the fear and I couldn’t help feeling the loathing wouldn’t be far behind.
Maybe it was the drink or the jet lag or both but, next morning, we needed air to clear our heads and some space to give the Great Red Shark its. So we drove towards the downtown district (old Vegas), noting that the half-built City Center residential development of high-rise condos lunging skywards and dwarfing the Bellagio next door would finally screw the look of The Strip for good. Heading out past The Stratosphere, through wedding chapel hell and into the desert via the faded, low-rent, ramshackle charm of North Las Vegas, we joined the interstate and turned off at the Las Vegas Speedway, paying a brief visit to the international headquarters of Shelby Automobiles Inc half a mile further along Speedway Boulevard, partly for a coffee in the adjacent Carroll Shelby Museum and partly to work up a little Cobra-fuelled inspiration.
On a largely deserted service road for the industrial park where Shelby was located I put the caffeine and inspiration to good use with a spot of low-risk, high-decibel powersliding for Andy’s camera, using Thompson’s pretext of ‘checking for stress factors in the rear axle’, of course. It was no big deal. Although not endowed with the crispest or most direct helm on earth, the Vette has a beautifully balanced chassis and bags of steering lock. It’s a natural drifter. Then we found a long, straight road to nowhere and rifled the Shark up to 110 for the speedo shot. (You didn’t honestly think we drove all the way from LA at that speed…)
Before heading back into town, there was one last Corvette tradition to indulge: ignite the rear tyres in a smoky tribute to the great American sports car. Vettes are renowned for their toughness and will do this sort of thing all day long. We stopped at six burnouts. For the final one, Andy got back inside the car and the black lines we laid reached half the way back to Vegas. We spent the afternoon shopping for tee shirts and tat at The Strip’s Miracle Mile (formerly Desert Passage) with its fake sky and artificial thunder storms on the hour. When the real sky darkened, though, we drove back downtown to find the real Vegas, the Vegas of Fear and Loathing. It’s still there, constellations of old-fashioned bulbs clinging to defiantly kitsch ’50s style. We got as close as we could to what used to be The Mint hotel where Thompson and the attorney stayed on their first night in town (it was absorbed into Binion’s Horseshoe hotel in 1989), talked to passing strangers and, at one point, traded insults with a particularly asinine casino security officer who didn’t like where the Great Red Shark was parked. Can’t help feeling Thompson would have approved.
As we turned back for the Luxor, massively amplified live jazz boomed from what’s now called the Fremont Street Experience, an audio-visual assault on the senses that perhaps best summed up where the town was heading: four blocks of the street where it all began a century ago pedestrianised and covered by a 90-foot-high barrel vault canopy doubling as the world’s largest display screen. It really was time to leave.
Whatever happened to the Edonis, the supercar built by an outfit called B Engineering from left over Bugatti EB110 parts that had a body seemingly constructed entirely out of cooling ducts? Dunno. But, as well as its startling appearance, it sticks in my mind for a couple more reasons.
One was its exquisite steering. The Edonis changed direction like a Ferrari F40 – with sublime precision and beautifully judged feel. I don’t think I’ve driven a supercar since with a finer helm. The second was the utter brutality of its twin-turbocharged 3.7-litre V12. I’m absolutely sure I’ve never experienced an engine that felt more wired. So savage and relentless was the contribution of its IHI blowers, I remember thinking this is what turboed F1 cars must have felt like.
As the turbos spooled up, the step change in accelerative thrust was unsettling to the point of disorientation. And just when you thought it had dumped the lot in the small of your back, there was yet more to come. More throttle, more brain-scrambling push. Added to which, the multi-layered howl of the barely soundproofed V12 was almost frightening. Great. David Vivian
|Max power||436bhp @ 5900rpm|
|Max torque||428lb ft @ 4600rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed auto gearbox with paddleshift, rear-wheel drive|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs and dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Double wishbones, transverse composite leaf spring|
|Steering||Power assisted, speed-sensitive|
|Brakes||Ventilated discs, 325mm front, 340mm rear, ABS|
|Wheels||18in diameter front, 19in rear, aluminium alloy|
|Tyres||245/40 ZR18 front, 285/35 ZR19 rear|
|Power to weight||303bhp/ton|
|Top speed||190mph (claimed)|